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Campaigners for artistic freedom prepared to celebrate and defenders of public morals prepared to be outraged as the controversial stage musical "Hair" opened in London's West End 48 years ago today.

Staging the American "hippy musical" was only made possible in the UK by the new Theatres Act, which had come into force the previous day. It ended the Lord Chamberlain's powers of theatre censorship, which dated back to 1737, replacing them with a much more liberal code.

Notorious for on-stage group nudity, profanity, drug taking, anti-war messages and promotion of "free love", Hair had already made waves in the USA where it opened nine months previously. It would have been considered too outrageous to show on stage in the UK until the new Theatres Act came into force. 

Subtitled "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical", it told the story of a "tribe" of politically active long-haired hippies of the "Age of Aquarius" living a bohemian life in New York City. While opposing the Vietnam War, conscription and the outdated and repressive views of their parents' generation, they embraced the sexual revolution and "mind expanding" hallucinogenic drugs.

Sure enough, the play's opening did provoke outrage among sections of British society, with fears it would undermine the morals of anyone who saw it. Whether those expressing outrage had actually seen the show themselves was extremely doubtful. In the event it met with mixed reviews, many of the critics suggesting the "notorious" elements of the production had been hyped up to boost ticket sales. While some reviewers applauded the musical's honest and passionate portrayal of a counter-culture viewpoint, others felt it was trying a little too hard in its taboo-flouting defiance.

Even the musical's director, Tom O'Horgan, played down the much-talked-about group nudity at the end of Act I, saying: "I think that the famed nude scene has been greatly over-emphasised. It has very little importance in the show itself and much of the publicity has obscured the important aspects of the play, which are also perhaps shocking to people because they deal with things as they are. We tell it the way it is."

Whether helped or hindered by its notoriety, Hair enjoyed considerable success, running for four years on Broadway and five in the West End. In fact it only came to an end in London after the roof of the Shaftesbury Theatre collapsed, forcing its closure just three performances short of hitting the 2,000 mark.

Actor Oliver Tobias, a star of the London production, later took the show to Israel and Holland. It spawned a 1979 film version and has enjoyed countless successful revivals in theatres around the world.

Several other actors in the original West End cast have also gone on to enjoy successful careers, including Peter Straker, Paul Nicholas, Floella Benjamin, Sonja Kristina and Elaine Paige. It was also the place where a young actor named Tim Curry, in his first full-time theatrical role, met fellow actor and aspiring writer Richard O'Brien, who would later cast Curry as the star of his Rocky Horror Picture Show.

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